At their regular pandemic response meetings last year, Suffolk County, NY officials kept returning on geography issues.
“One of the most common questions I always got was’ Where is it bad?” Said Dr. Harsha Rajashekharaiah, the senior project coordinator for the county’s Covid-19 response. “Where is the Covid transmission bad? Where is the test bad? Where should we improve? Where should we invest our resources? “
To find answers, Dr. Rajashekharaiah geospatial and waving colorful maps showing the exact neighborhoods where cases rose or test rates lagged.
And after the vaccinations began, he started using digital mapping tools – commonly known as geographic information system or GIS software – to study how vaccination rates differ across the county and how they correlate to a variety of demographic factors.
Several patterns soon appeared on the color-coded cards. For example, in March, magenta stains in the west of the county made it clear that vaccination rates were low in neighborhoods with high proportions of people who did not speak English well. After presenting the card to his colleagues, they quickly added Spanish and Haitian Creole to their vaccine hotline.
Over the next several months, as vaccination rates rose in these neighborhoods, parts of the map turned yellow or even green. “I can’t sit here and conclude that our GIS system is the reason,” said Dr. Rajashekharaiah. But he added, “GIS has been a very, very powerful tool for us to communicate these barriers.”
In the midst of the very uneven adoption of Covid-19 vaccines, many health officials and community organizations rely on geospatial data to plan their vaccination campaigns and track their progress in detail. Esri, a California-based company that makes widely used GIS software, says hundreds of organizations around the world – including many US states and more than 20 national governments – are using their digital mapping tools to help them get shots to get in the gun.
“GIS and mapping tools were really important in helping these health authorities get people vaccinated – to make the process more organized, rational and strategic, and even more tactical,” said Dr. Este Geraghty, Esri’s Chief Medical Officer.
By enabling officials to quickly spot vaccination deserts, locate high-risk groups, and use their resources more efficiently, digital maps have become crucial tools to ensure vaccination campaigns leave no neighborhood behind.
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Location, location, location
As the virus raced through Wisconsin in the spring of 2020, Milwaukee County officials worried about its unequal toll. In late March and early April, for example, black residents accounted for 69 percent of Covid deaths in the county, despite only making up 27 percent of the population, according to a report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
These differences were at the fore when the Covid-19 vaccines were finally approved. “We wanted to make sure we were distributing this vaccine fairly,” said David Crowley, chief executive officer of Milwaukee County.
They began categorizing census areas according to their vaccination rates and their scores on a national “social vulnerability index”. The index uses data on 15 different social, economic, and demographic factors – including residents’ age, minority status, and educational level, and local poverty and unemployment rates – to calculate how vulnerable a given one is Community in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane or a pandemic.
The officers then displayed the results online on a color-coded card. In mid-March, when the county first published it, much of the city of Milwaukee was colored dark orange, suggesting the area has high social vulnerability but low vaccination rates.
On the other hand, the suburbs, where the population is more affluent and whiter, have been shaded pale yellow, suggesting that they had low scores on the Vulnerability Index, but vaccination rates were increasing. “And so there was this story of the haves and the haves or two different cities,” said Dr. Ben Weston, who is overseeing the medical aspects of the county’s Covid-19 response.
County and city officials began pouring resources into deep orange neighborhoods, prioritizing these residents for vaccine appointments, adding more vaccine sites in these areas, and setting up pop-up sites and events in churches, pantries, libraries, schools and cultural centers. They also launched a community ambassador program – the Crush Covid Crew – to train volunteers from these deep orange census areas to talk to their neighbors about the vaccines and dispel misinformation about them.
Although vaccination rates are still lagging in the most vulnerable areas, they have more than tripled since mid-March. “The darkest orange communities are now gone,” said Dr. Weston. “So we’re making progress.”
Aug 1, 2021, 10:42 p.m. ET
Dispensing of cans
The Georgia Count Me In initiative, launched by Stacey Abrams, former Democratic candidate for Georgia governorate, takes a similar approach. But instead of focusing on vaccination rates, it mapped vaccination sites across the state and then overlaid data on potential vaccination barriers, including lack of computer access and low car ownership rates.
The map showed numerous potential trouble spots, especially in rural southwest Georgia. “We saw this very high concentration of people with very limited access to vaccines,” said Ali Bustamante, a senior research fellow at the Southern Economic Advancement Project, who leads the initiative with the nonprofit Fair Count. “There were very few vaccination sites, while at the same time they faced enormous access restrictions.”
Working with vaccine providers to deploy mobile clinics to some of these vaccine deserts, the groups began a large-scale advertising campaign borrowing the tools of a political campaign to encourage people to get vaccinations. Volunteers ended up making 79,000 phone calls, providing vaccine information to 17,000 doors, and helping book 4,500 vaccination appointments. “Especially in rural areas we have seen that the vaccination gap has closed significantly,” said Dr. Bustamante.
Geospatial data is also of crucial importance for logistics. Carto, a cloud-based geospatial analysis platform, has helped dozens of logistics companies around the world optimize their vaccine storage and transportation networks to distribute vaccinations faster and more efficiently, said Luis Sanz, the company’s CEO.
And in Clackamas County, Oregon, GIS data is the backbone of efforts to vaccinate homebound people. “As we are a large county with more rural areas, we have some transport problems and access is a challenge for many of our residents.” said Kim La Croix, a public health program manager for the county. “These mass vaccination centers were simply inaccessible to home-bound seniors and home-bound people with mental, developmental, or physical disabilities.”
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When residents call or email the county to request a home vaccination, staff log their location, which is shown on a digital map. Then, when assigning specific appointment slots, they check the card, which shows the number and type of vaccines requested across the county. The goal is to reduce caregiver travel time, maximize the number of syringes administered daily, and minimize the amount of waste by ensuring that the number of doses a caregiver delivers in a shift matches the number of doses in a Vial equivalent.
In low- and middle-income countries, basic geospatial data – how many people need to be vaccinated and where they live – has been critical to the success of previous mass vaccination campaigns. For example, about a decade ago government officials and global health experts found that polio vaccination teams in northern Nigeria were using inaccurate, hand-drawn maps.
“There were no settlements, wrong settlement names,” said Emilie Schnarr, the Nigerian project manager for the program “Georeferenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development” (GRID3). “And that was one of the reasons children went missing.”
Credit…Inuwa Barau et al., Journal of Infectious Diseases
Without reaching these children, the highly contagious polio virus would likely continue to circulate. In the years that followed, the Nigerian government worked with several global health organizations to create satellite imagery and local field service teams to create detailed, high-resolution maps and fill in missing buildings, settlements, and local landmarks.
The cards helped Nigeria eradicate polio, which the country finally did last year. And GRID3, which emerged from these efforts, recently distributed updated maps to local officials across Nigeria who are using them to plan and track their Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.
You are not alone. In March, five organizations specializing in geospatial data and information management – Alcis, CartONG, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, iMMAP and MapAction – joined forces to launch the Geographic Information Management Initiative for Covid-19 Vaccine Delivery. Its goal is to help 15 low-income countries, including Haiti, Sudan and Bangladesh, fill in gaps in their geospatial data and then use that information to deliver vaccines to their residents.
The work, it is said, will be of benefit not only to this pandemic, but also to providing all kinds of basic services to ensure that local health officials know where their citizens live as well can help them meet their needs.
“Being on the map needs recognition,” said Ivan Gayton, senior humanitarian advisor for the OpenStreetMap humanitarian team. “Every community in the world should be able to put itself on the map.”